Raoul and Madeleine

November 1, 2017 - 12:00am -- Living City

Raoul and Madeleine
The Follereau couple spent their life for lepers — now their process of beatification has begun

By Michele Genisio

Adzopé, Ivory Coast 1935: A jeep stopped at the edge of a pond. Suddenly, a group of lepers came out of the forest covered with rags, face and body lesions from the illness. They look scared and obviously hungry.

Raoul and Madeleine looked at each other. Leprosy ... still exists? Yes, there it was right in front of them. They realized that from that day, their lives would no longer be the same.

But what were they doing there?

Raoul Follereau had followed a voice, an inner call years earlier when he returned to prosperous France after a period of solitude spent in Tamanrasset, Algeria, a city surrounded by desert among the Tuareg people. It had been the voice of St. Charles de Foucauld. Raoul heard that call and followed it. 

He had already become known at the age of 17 for his publication Book of Love, centered on the phrase “Being happy is to make others happy.” It sold 10 million copies and was translated into 35 languages. Being a journalist, Raoul managed to get sent as a special envoy of the French newspaper La Nation to follow in the footsteps of that fascinating saint. After visiting the places of Foucauld, he embarked on a safari into the heart of Africa.

At his side, as always, was Madeleine Boudou. They met when they were 15 years old, and immediately fell in love. “We had 30 years together,” Follereau said, smiling. They were married at 22: a life-long love story, a life inseparable, always together as one.

After traveling to Africa, Raoul and Madeleine returned to France. They had no doubt their lives would be dedicated to lepers. But after a few years Europe was taken over by Nazi madness.

Follereau was a celebrity: a writer, a poet, a journalist. He had always professed his Catholic faith and his anti-Nazi beliefs openly, to the point of publicly describing Hitler as an “antichrist.”

He went into hiding like many in the French resistance, and sought shelter in a convent of nuns on the outskirts of Lyon. He was the gardener, but he continued to work for “his lepers.”

As the war raged on, in 1942 he launched his “first crusade:” an initiative of solidarity called “The hour of the poor.” Over the next few years, others campaigns followed: “Christmas of Fr. Foucauld,” in which he invited people to donate for children in need, “The shoe of the leper,” the “Strike of egoism” and “The day of the leper.” Thanks to his charisma and tenacity, these initiatives enjoyed incredible success.

After World War II, Raoul traveled from Africa to Asia, stopping at several islands in the Indian Ocean to fully understand the harrowing reality of the lepers: “In the 20th century of Christianity I found lepers in jail, locked up in mental hospitals, buried in desecrated cemeteries and confined in the desert with barbed wire, search lights and machine guns. I have seen their wounds covered with flies, their contaminated hovels, their guards with rifles. I have seen an unimaginable world of horror, sorrow and despair.”

In 1953, with money he had gathered by participating in many conferences around the world, he inaugurated the City of Lepers in Adzopé. It was made up of houses built in the forest, laboratories, a radio station and cinema. Millions of other lepers around the world would also be helped in the years that followed.

While France was affected by the uproar of 1968, Raoul continued his work. He managed to get 4 million people involved, especially young people, to ask the UN to donate what would be “the cost of a day of war for peace,” and USA and USSR to donate the cost of a bomber to fight leprosy.

The request was ignored, but Follereau’s numbers were impressive: he cured and healed a million lepers; he traveled two million miles to collect millions of dollars for them. Thanks to his dedication, the wounds of leprosy have been diminished.

In all his work, Raoul always had Madeleine at his side as secretary, assistant, counselor — a pure, loving presence. They continually traveled together.

“When you are in two, you are invincible,” said Raoul. He never missed a chance to recall that he could do so only because she was at his side.

Raoul Follereau died in 1977, Madeleine Boudou in 1991. The beatification process began for each separately some years ago. In addition to the great work for lepers, which continues today, the love between those two is a beautiful testament they left. It was their mutual love that guided Follereau’s work. It made him understand that the world needs bread, but also tenderness.

First published in Città Nuova, Italy.

The work of Raoul and Madeleine Follereau lives on through dozens
of organizations around the world. Since 1961, the activity of Raoul Follereau
on behalf of leprosy sufferers in the southern part of the world is continued
by the Italian Association Friends of Raoul Follereau.
There’s more at english.aifo.it.